Analyzing a Poll, Florida Edition

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A knowledgeable reader sent me a link to the “Intellectual Freedom and Diversity of Views” survey that employees of public colleges and universities in Florida take. As a sociologist and political theorist by training, as well as an experienced university administrator, I can attest that this is one of the most idiotic official documents I have ever seen.

It stumbles from the start with the second question, in which the respondent is expected to agree or disagree with the following statement which I am not making up or altering in any way:

“I regularly see examples of free and welcome expression (such as speeches, debates with other students or instructors, class assignments, etc.) on my campus.”

Yes, I regularly see sample class assignments on my campus. What this has to do with assessing a political climate is a mystery.

It’s getting worse. Question 9, which is only answered in the conditional, outlines the ideological scope envisaged by the survey. According to the survey, there are exactly three ideologies: conservative, liberal and “other”.

Give me strength…

What if you consider yourself a centrist? A libertarian? A socialist? (Many leftists consider “liberal” an epithet.) An anarchist? A monarchist? Apparently, the Florida government views liberals as a suspect class but cannot distinguish between libertarians and socialists. If you can’t tell the difference between Peter Thiel and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I see no reason to defer to your political judgment.

Endearingly, this assumes a level of ideological self-awareness in question 12. Professors are expected to agree or disagree with the statement “I rarely inject my own political ideas and beliefs into my classes”.

Sigh …

Hardly anyone believes that they “inject” their own political beliefs into the classroom. That’s not how it all works. Political perspectives appear in what is defined as worthy of attention, in what counts as evidence and in which sources are considered reliable. They help sort out what to take seriously. For example, many conservatives think liberal-leaning academics are a problem, but not conservative-leaning police. Many liberals would reverse that. Conservatives often argue that the problem with immigration is that there is too much and that traditional culture is under threat. Liberals often argue that the problem with immigration is that many immigrants are mistreated. (Besides, libertarians often deny the premise and call for open borders.) They frame the problem differently; from there, it naturally follows that they land on different proposed solutions. This is not about “injecting” a bias; this is what happens when deeply held worldviews tackle thorny issues.

Of course, in the overwhelming majority of classes, the only correct answer would be “not applicable”. When I studied calculus, I couldn’t have told you what my teacher’s policy was. He never came. Nor were we exposed to different ways of seeing things; every problem had a correct solution, and that was it. Does this make calculation dogmatic? Other than Paul Feyerabend, I would be hard pressed to name anyone who would say yes. But in this investigation, that would be the inference.

Besides, the idea that someone wants to read the room before putting their politics to the test sounds less like censorship and more like good manners. Saying “vote for Smith” is free speech; blasting “vote for Smith!” from the street in my room at 100 decibels at 3:00 a.m. that’s harassment. Playing the trumpet is perfectly legal, but I have the right to expel a student from my political science class if he doesn’t stop playing it during class. It’s not censorship; it promotes a decent learning environment. Teaching students to think about the impact of their words on others goes back to the trivium (or even the sophists). It’s only oppression if, on some level, you don’t see others as important.

The investigation does not achieve its objective, and its objective is in obvious bad faith. It’s poorly written, superficial, and clearly designed to fuel sensational headlines and subsequent budget cuts. Reading it, I suddenly understood why Florida wanted to buy accreditors; no accreditor worthy of the name could tolerate such a mandate. No, Florida, there aren’t just three ways to see the world, and I would question the professional competence of anyone who claimed there were.

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